I’ve decided to just embrace my role as the Simon Cowell of the writing world. I’m honestly tired of being nice and supportive to everyone who comes up to me with a half-baked idea or worse, a half-baked product, and asks what I think. Because they don’t want to know what I think. They want to hear how awesome they are. And most of the time they aren’t awesome. Most of the time I’d be better off trimming my toenails than reading their godawful attempts at a book or story, because at least that can get exciting if I trim a little too closely. So here goes – unexpurgated Hartness on why you’re not going to make it as a writer.
Let’s start with a definition of “make it.” You’re not going to ever be able to quit your day job and write full-time. If you make $40,000 per year at a nice comfortable job, you’re going to need to make at least $50K as a writer to cover the self-employment tax and other costs associated with being self-employed. And that’s if you live somewhere cheap.
But let’s be honest – that’s not everyone’s goal. Some folks just want to sell well enough to make a bestseller list, or see their book in a bookstore without having to sneak it in under their coat. Some folks want to sit on panels at conventions, and maybe even be a Guest of Honor. Those are also reasonable, achievable goals for a lot of writers.
And here are the reasons you won’t get there.
1) You are Fucking Lazy – If I’m wrong, prove it. Stop whining about how much time you don’t have to write, or how much “real life” gets in the way, or how much time it takes to raise your kids, or work your job, and how you’re too tired after working all day, coming home, fixing dinner, feeding a family, cleaning up after dinner, bathing the little ankle-biters, getting them to bed and then performing your husbandly duties so your wife still loves you. Yeah, shut your cake hole.
Somewhere out there is someone who is doing all that shit while wiping the ass of their Alzheimer’s-riddled father and taking online classes at the University of Fuckstickery just so they can get a $1,500/year raise at their cube farm. And they’re still jamming a thousand words a day. That means that while you’re all caught up on Agents of Shield, they’ve cranked out 250,000 words in a year. That’s not just a novel, that’s a fucking Brandon Sanderson novel.
So before you send me hate mail about how hard you’ve got it, go read this – The Road to Publication. If you read that and have had half the fucked up shit happen to you that Sherrilyn Kenyon has lived through, then you’ve had it rough. If you’ve gone through all that and THEN pulled your shit back together and blown the doors off publishing – then I promise I’ll never call you lazy again. Sherrilyn Kenyon is a motherfucking inspiration to me and I go back through that story whenever I feel like I’ve got it rough. Then I shut the fuck up and write.
2) You don’t want it badly enough – This is tied to the first one, but different. I’ve spent my life in the arts. Theatre and writing are how I’ve made my living, at least tangentially, since I got out of college. I’ve spoken to many high school theatre kids and I’ve always told them the same thing – if there is anything else in the world that will make you happy, please go do that. This (theatre and writing) is a lonely, bizarre, world-destroying, soul-crushing business where you accept rejection as the norm and the tiniest bit of encouragement is like the first rainbow after Noah docked that fucking ark.
A life in the arts will destroy your health, relationships, and any hope of routinely seeing sunlight. It is not a career, it is a calling, it is an addiction, it is my church. If you can imagine yourself doing anything else – go do that. Save yourself the suffering. Because you will get rejected ten or twenty or fifty times for every acceptance, and you will fall down so often your knees will feel like mashed potatoes, and you will spend more time flat on your ass than a Floyd Mayweather opponent. So go do something else – this isn’t for any reasonable person.
3) You have a huge ego – If you can’t accept honest criticism and understand that sometimes your shit just isn’t good enough, then you’re going to be a dick and no one will want to work with you.
4) You don’t have enough ego – If you don’t think you’re fucking amazing and the best thing since sliced bread, then nobody is going to believe in you and no one will give you a shot. I’ve given kind of short shrift to these two points, but the heart of it is that there is a very fine line between confidence and arrogance, and you need to dance along that line. I tend to land a little more on the arrogant side of it (I’m writing a post on how to be a writer, after all), but you should find out what works for you.
5) You don’t know how to write – Let me be clear here – I am not a great writer. I am a very good storyteller, and I have some skill with putting words together for a desired effect, be it humor or horror. But I am not a great writer. I don’t have to be. Neither do you. The world has one Neil Gaiman, one Pat Rothfuss, one N.K. Jamison, one Ken Liu. It doesn’t need more than one. But it does need a cadre of people who understand the basic tenets of storytelling and can string words together in a coherent manner. And that doesn’t come easy to anyone.
Stephen King says you have to write a million terrible words before you get to the good ones. Malcolm Gladwell says you have to spend 10,000 hours working at something to be good at it. Before I wrote The Chosen, I spent five years working for the internet poker industry, churning out roughly 500,000 words of poker tournament coverage. I spent half a million word trying to make the flop, turn and river interesting and trying to find new ways of saying “This jackass got all his money in as an 80% underdog and crushed his opponent’s soul when one of this eight outs came one the river.” I also blogged for six or seven years, turning out another few hundred thousand words.
I wrote my million shitty words, and still there’s a bunch of crap that comes out in my first drafts. I have a degree in Theatre, with an English minor, and a fair number of Creative Writing classes under my belt. I’ve studied my craft. I read books on writing. I attend workshops and panels on writing. I continue to work on my craft. If you don’t know what passive voice is and why it’s bad, don’t waste my time.
You’ll notice I didn’t say anything about talent. I don’t give a fuck about talent. Talent doesn’t do a goddamned thing for anyone that skill won’t do better and more consistently. You want to make it in this business? Then go write. Write a thousand words a day, five days a week, at a minimum. And the comments you send me telling me what an asshole I am to write this post? Those words don’t count.